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Nerd Camp: Discovering Inspirational Values Of Science-Fiction

Michael and Denise Okuda bring popular blog to 1701News

Denise and I used to have a blog, but it went offline a couple of years ago. Since then, we’ve been meaning to bring it back, but you know how it goes. There’s always something more pressing.

Our friends at 1701News have generously agreed to host some of our old and new postings, which they’ll start putting up in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here’s a special report on our recent visit to our favorite starship.

The door was locked, but a swipe of a security access card rewarded us with a satisfying “click.” Someone pushed the double doors open and we stepped into the laboratory. We paused for the briefest instant as my eyes, and those of my fellow campers, were transfixed on the object on the other side of the room: the Starship Enterprise.

We strode across the room toward the ship, trying not to run. There she was, in all her warp-powered glory. The ship in which we’d vicariously explored the final frontier for most of our lives. Capt. Kirk’s pride, and the symbol of Gene Roddenberry’s vision and of Matt Jefferies’s artistic genius. I felt Denise take my hand and I knew this moment meant as much to her as it did to me. Hushed, we all crowded around the ship.

Denise and I were at the meeting of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s special advisory committee on the Starship Enterprise studio model. (Yeah, we need a better name.) We were joined by John Goodson, Gary Kerr, Andrew Probert, Adam Schneider, Rick Sternbach and John Van Citters, all at the invitation of Margaret Weitekamp, one of the Smithsonian’s curators for spaceflight history. We were at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to see the original Enterprise filming model and to offer suggestions for its conservation, restoration and display.

I called it Nerd Camp.

We’d seen the model years before at the Smithsonian, but this was our first chance to examine it up close. It was a homecoming with a beloved friend. As lifelong Trek fans, virtually every line, every detail of Jefferies’ starship felt familiar. Felt right.

They gave us plenty of time to linger over the model. We were in geek heaven. The model is big (11 feet long!) and we drank in every detail. Even though we knew most of the ship by heart, it’s very different to see it sitting in front of you. We examined the grid lines on the saucer and we looked at the differences between the starboard side (which was intended to be photographed) and the port side (which was not filmed and was mostly undetailed). We could get as close as we wanted to the model, but they made us wear gloves if we wanted to actually touch it.

What shined through was the genius of Jefferies’ design. His Enterprise was unlike anything before in visual science-fiction. Jefferies used his background as a real-life aviator to give his creation something he called “aircraft logic,” so the ship seemed to make functional sense even if you had no idea how it really worked. But he also used his artistic talents to make the Enterprise look like a true creature of deep space, one seeming to defy gravity, one with the power to traverse the vast distances between the stars.

In charge of the delicate task of conserving and restoring the model is Malcolm Collum, who carries the impressive title of Engen Conservation chair for the museum. He told us one of the most important goals was to preserve the ship for future study, so permanent changes need to be minimized. Conservation specialist Ariel O’Connor took off the hangar deck doors, and we peered inside to see the raw wood and the electrical socket and the bulb that illuminated the windows. Collum removed the deflector dish and stuck a flashlight into the engineering hull. I heard a gasp of surprise and delight when the windows lit up, just like we remembered on television. We knew it all along: The Enterprise is real.

Still, seeing our favorite starship in such intimate detail revealed some significant issues, mostly the effects of over five decades of aging on a prop intended only to last a few years. Probably the most serious was the sagging of the nacelles. The weight of the engine pods puts a lot of stress on the engineering hull, which has begun to crack. Collum said he was afraid the hull might eventually split open if this was not addressed. The trick will be to reinforce the model while minimizing structural changes to this historic artifact.

Weitekamp explained that the museum wants to tell two different stories with the model. They want to show the imaginary Starship Enterprise as it was on television, but they also want to showcase the model as it was used in the show’s groundbreaking visual effects. This means the museum will preserve the undetailed port side of the model in its relatively bare state, since that’s the way it was during filming. But it also means that they’ll painstakingly restore the paint on most of the model so that it matches the original paint and finish on the saucer.

Right next to the model, the Smithsonian team set up easels with scale drawings of the ship done by Gary Kerr, a fellow nerd camper and one of the world’s foremost experts on the ship. Also next to the model was a large computer screen on which we could see numerous reference images. Those included some amazing high-resolution photos of the ship taken during the first season, courtesy of Greg Jein. We studied those closely and were rather surprised to find that most of the “weathering” painted on the model during the controversial 1991 restoration was, in fact, quite accurate even though it had been applied too heavily.

Another important source of information was the Enterprise model itself. Throughout its time at the Smithsonian, one surface of the model had always been preserved with its original paint and finish. That was the top of the saucer. Although the grid lines were as faint as we had expected, we were surprised to see how much light streaking and other weathering had been painted onto the saucer. We were even more surprised to see that much of the weathering was green and brown, something that we never suspected when watching the show on television.

Not all of our time was spent communing with the model. We also had meetings with the curatorial and restoration teams, as well as with the folks designing a new custom display case for the ship. My favorite Nerd Camp moment was during one of those meetings. Denise and I had brought an “authentic” dilithium crystal used as set dressing in the Rura Penthe mines in an episode of “Star Trek: Enterprise.” We presented it to Weitekamp during our lunch break as a gag gift.

We expected her to chuckle for a few moments, but were delighted that she seemed genuinely touched. For a moment, we thought we might even have seen a glint in the corner of her eye. She broke out into the broadest smile imaginable and thanked us. In that moment, we knew that the Enterprise could not possibly be in better hands.

We were so focused on the Enterprise that it was awhile before anyone noticed the other aerospace treasures in the Emil Buehler Conservation Lab. Just a couple of tables down was Frank Borman’s space suit from Gemini VII, and the hatch from a Mercury spacecraft. On another table was a panel from the nose of Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. We all stood for a moment in quiet awe at an artifact from one of America’s greatest aviators.

Down the hall, restoration was underway on Flak Bait, the historic B-26 that survived more bombing missions than any other U.S. aircraft during World War II. Nearby were flight spares of the historic Mariner 2 (first successful interplanetary probe) and Pioneer 10 (first to Jupiter, first to reach solar escape velocity), as well as two of Robert Goddard’s rockets.

O’Connor showed us a box of genuine NASA Kapton foil that will be used in renovating an Apollo Lunar Module. At the very end of our adventure, we were able to eke out a few minutes to see a few of the actual exhibits in the Udvar-Hazy Center. We had just a few moments to take in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Concorde and the Enola Gay. We stopped briefly at the magnificent Space Shuttle Discovery. Finally, we just HAD to search for the little R2-D2 on the “Close Encounters” mothership.

Too soon, Nerd Camp was over and we all returned home. Restoration and conservation work on the Enterprise model will soon begin in earnest. The ship will go back on public display in July 2016, part of the unveiling of the National Air and Space Museum’s renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in Washington, D.C.

In recent years, the Enterprise languished in a display case in the museum’s gift shop. No longer. The starship will soon take its place in the main entry gallery, alongside the Spirit of St. Louis, Chuck Yeager’s X-1 rocket plane and SpaceShipOne.

Enterprise will be the only fictional spaceship in that historic collection of real-world aerospace icons. Why this extraordinary treatment for something that’s only flown in our imaginations? It’s not just that it was part of a very special television show. It’s not just that it represents the design genius of a talented art director. More than any other single object, the Enterprise represents the inspirational value of science-fiction for science, technology and space exploration.

The Enterprise filming model remains the physical manifestation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision: When we work together, when we are smart and when we are courageous, the benefits of science and technology will improve our lives as we strive to understand the cosmos and literally reach the stars.

See a video of the Okuda’s visit here.

Denise Okuda, Ariel O’Connor, John Goodson, Rick Sternbach and Adam Schneider study the original weathering streaks that had been subtly painted on the top of the saucer. The group was surprised by the amount of weathering and even more surprised by the streaks distinct green and brown colors.

ILM model maker John Goodson studies the hangar deck at the back of the ship’s engineering hull. Note that the port side of the ship is relatively undetailed.

Denise Okuda takes a close-up of the ship’s registry number. The top surface of the saucer has never been repainted, so it represents the original finish that was applied to the model back in the 1960s.

Just a few feet from the Starship Enterprise studio model in the conservation lab was this treasure: the nose art from Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. The plane and its nose will go back on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, near the Enterprise.

Greg Jein’s model of the mothership from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Can you find R2-D2?

Margaret Weitekamp, curator for Spaceflight History for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, shows off a “genuine” dilithium crystal. Photo by Victoria Portway.

The Smithsonian’s special advisory committee on the Starship Enterprise, from left, Adam Schneider, Ariel O’Connor, Rick Sternbach, Margaret Weitekamp, Gary Kerr, Malcolm Collum, Denise Okuda, John Goodson, Mike Okuda, John Van Citters and Andrew Probert. Photo by Dane Penland.

All photos by Mike Okuda except as noted. Story and photos © 2015 Michael and Denise Okuda.

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